Making coffee in Thailand

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: your morning cuppa Joe.

Coffee is the second most-traded commodity on earth. Second only to oil, which is the most-traded commodity.

Americans consume an average of 400 million cups of coffee each day. Since the first Starbucks opened in 1971, the number of coffee shops has exploded. Some 30,000 cafes have created a coffee culture that has swept the nation.

EICHER: The United States isn’t alone in its coffee craze. The Nordic countries are the world’s top coffee drinkers, with Finland consuming three times as much as the United States.

But it’s also popular in Asia. WORLD Radio correspondent Jill Nelson recently visited Thailand and saw the process farmers there use to take coffee from seed to cup.

AUDIO: [Sound of birds and insects in jungle]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: I’m in the jungle about 5,000 feet above sea level. Under the cool canopy of lush, jungle trees grows a cluster of about 30 bushes: shade grown coffee plants.

AUDIO: [Amoe speaking Thai]

That’s Amoe Muelae. He’s a 35-year-old member of the Akha hill tribe. He’s also a coffee grower. Many villagers here used to grow opium poppies. But two decades ago, Thailand replaced opium farms with coffee and other crops. Coffee was a big success, and trendy cafes are easy to find in the cities. That means most beans stay local since Thailand consumes more coffee than it produces.

Local farmers like Amoe are trying to perfect their methods and tap into the global market. Through a translator, he explains why shade is so important.

AMOE: Sometimes when the weather is too hot, that can stress the coffee plants out. Most of the farms around here are strategically planted underneath large shade trees, so they take advantage of the shade. Thus the shade grown coffee.

AUDIO: [Men talking, working]

Nearby farmers are picking the dark red fruit from the bushes. They call it the cherry. It’s juicy and tastes mildly sweet. That’s not the coffee bean. The bean is actually the seed within the fruit. And it is bitter.

AUDIO: [Chatter]

Four women sit around a blue tarp covered with the berries. They separate the ripened red coffee berries from the green ones. They let me help—but it’s tedious work. It stains the fingers and strains the back.

Amoe explains why there are so few spoiled berries:

AMOE: So there’s not a lot of pests that attack coffee plants… some ants … some different kinds of bugs that give them a little trouble but not too much.

AUDIO: [Chatter and stirring]

After sorting the berries, the farmers use a hopper to tear off the outer skins. Then they place the wet beans with hulls in the sun to dry for about five days. Coffee drying stations are everywhere… on roofs and handmade bamboo platforms next to homes. The farmers rake the beans several times each day.

AUDIO: [Sound of pounding the beans]

Then the farmers place the beans in a mortar bowl and pound them with a pestle. This removes the hull, or outside parchment layer.

AUDIO: [Talking, roasting, laughing]

That leaves the bean in a “green” state with a silver skin. The beans are stored that way for at least 6 months—and up to 3 years—before roasting.

Amoe lights a wood fire inside a large clay oven. He tosses the light colored coffee beans into the giant wok-shaped bowl over the fire. He stirs the contents until they darken and the silver skin comes off. Maybe 20 minutes. It’s smokey, but now we begin to smell coffee.

AUDIO: [Sound of separating the coffee from the chaff]

Next, a woman scoops the hot beans into a large, flat sifting basket. She tosses the contents into the air separating out the silver skins.

I try to copy her rhythmic movements and fail. Coffee beans fly out of the basket.

Finally, the part we’ve been waiting for…

AUDIO: [Sound of grinding beans]

Grinding  the beans and brewing the coffee.

AMOE: [Laugh] We’re going to grind it right there… It does not get fresher than this.

AUDIO: [Pouring coffee]

This mountain-grown and brewed cup of coffee is rich and earthy, and I have a new appreciation for all the hard work invested into my daily dose of caffeine.

AUDIO: [Sound of working, talking]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson, reporting from Bon Abone, Thailand.

(Photo/Jill Nelson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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